Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda /I Have No Stories to Tell You

Mar 04, 2014

Prufrocks dilemma

Susan Scheid

This time, I would hear the Gotham Chamber Opera perform two short operas: Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the premiere of Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories to Tell You. While each opera tells a tale of war, Monteverdi’s work “is about the act of war and battle” set during the First Crusade, and Beecher’s, whose protagonist is a contemporary photojournalist home after assignment in the Middle East, “is about the after-effects of war, the difficulty of coming home.”

Museum staff ushered the audience down the museum’s long corridors. On the way, we passed a man in modern soldier’s camouflage standing in a glass case, a harbinger of Beecher’s opera yet to come. We moved back in time to a period when the armor arrayed in the Arms and Armor Court held sway. We stood around a circle of fabricated dirt on which two soldiers would soon spar. We were now, somehow, not simply audience, but part of the action, living spectators to a battle that took place centuries before we were born. Two narrators, Abigail Fischer and Samuel Levine, circled the two singer-warriors as they fought. The exquisitely modest instrumentation included two Baroque violins, a Baroque viola, cello, and oboe, and a harpsichord and lute-like theorbo.

From the last image of Tancredi holding the dying Clorinda, we walked toward the Medieval Sculpture Hall, the familiar corridor made strange by an undertow of apprehension revealed in sound. The sound, composed by Beecher, was electronic, “derived from recordings of the period instruments playing various extended techniques and effects.”  I am a confessed skeptic when it comes to deployment of electronics to create musical effects, but my resistance was soon overcome. By sound alone, Beecher carried us from the distant past into the present, along an unrelieved, yet subtle, line of tension. While we might have left behind the dying Clorinda, there would be no respite.

We settled on benches on either side of a long, rust-colored ramp. Lighting threw off sharp-edged shadows from the Spanish choir screen, ordinarily an object of benign beauty in the Hall. Levine, now Noah and a modern soldier, appeared on the ramp. Beth Clayton, who had been Clorinda, was now Sorrel; Craig Verm, her Tancredi, was now Daniel. Accompanied by a chorus of three memories (Sarah Tucker, Rachel Calloway, and Fischer), Clayton and Verm depicted, with gripping eloquence, Sorrel’s unnamed distress and Daniel’s poignant probing of Sorrel’s nightly inability to sleep—an aftershock of war in which Noah was to play an essential part.

One of Beecher’s great gifts is his mastery of understatement, evinced here, among other things, in moments of unaccompanied chorus and the oboe’s winding line to achieve exactly the effect the narrative required and no more. Matched by Hannah Moscovitch’s libretto, Beecher’s music limned the rising tension between Sorrel and Daniel with a sure hand. It’s rare for a libretto and music to work this well together to infuse the dailiness of ordinary language with such power. In a production that was elegantly spare, this excellent ensemble of musicians and singers made palpable the half-submerged, indeterminate landscape of human hearts and minds.